Maybe you are Catholic. Maybe you are a resident of the New Orleans area or some other enclave where people celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, which signifies the end of Christmas every year for many people. Maybe not. Maybe you should celebrate it anyway!
While the famous accoutrement for a fete des rois is of course a big Technicolor-icing galette with a charm hidden in someone’s slice, there is no question that good red wine is another de rigeur element of any self-respecting fete. Being a diligent soul, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. You want something as close as possible to ancient; probably something that was being farmed in southern Italy a really, really long time ago. But taking into account price points, availability, flavor profiles and the whole commitment to trying something you don’t usually try, I went a little north of Rome.
A Piemontese red whose name means “foggy” because the grapes have a unique frosted-looking skin, or because of the characteristic low-lying fog in the area’s vineyards, or both (I’ve heard both.) The grape has been in cultivation since before the Common Era and is mentioned in the writings of Pliny the Elder, so it definitely meets the “ancient” criterion. Good Nebbiolo wines, notably Barolo and Barbaresco, are holiday-price-point in many cases, though there are affordable ones out there. Nebbiolo makes wines that are lighter-colored (a transparent red-violet is common) and can be quite tannic. Common aromatics include strawberries, rose petals and tar. Rosato versions exist but can be a little hard to find. If you find one, by all means grab it; Nebbiolo can yield absolutely delightful pinks. Nebbiolo is not a team player where transplanting is concerned; it likes Piemonte and won’t just take off and make great wine in any soil. That said, you can find plantings on the West Coast and in Baja California, and some good experiments are being done with this delicious grape. Most of the good stuff still comes from Italy though.
Some Nebbiolo wines to consider, whether for your Epiphany Feast or just in case your taste buds need an epiphany in general.
Ascheri Barolo 2012 (Piemonte, Italy; $45)
An intensely garnet-colored wine with exquisite dried flower aromatics and hints of tar and licorice. Heavy on red fruits, with tannins wine geeks would be likely to call “chewy.” Structure for miles.
Adriano Marco e Vittorio Basarin Barbaresco 2014 (Piemonte, Italy; $26)
Deep red (brick tones emerge with age). Fruity in its youth with hints of sweet orange and mandarin, it will open into a spicy, vanilla-driven wine with the hallmark Nebbiolo notes of wild rose and violet. Very dry and quite robust.
Elvio Cogno Vigna Elena Barolo DOCG
A dark hue for an often lightly-pigmented wine, this is a ruby red Barolo with bricky orange glints. Jump-out-of-the-glass aromatics: A kind of plum and potpourri thing with lots of dried flower notes (rose and violet mainly) and resinous herbs as well as damson plum. Tannins are pronounced but soft (the word “melty” comes to mind). Super long finish, rich mouthfeel.
Massolino (Piemonte, Italy; About $40)
Beloved of critics, this wine comes from various sub-blocks in Serralunga and has terra-cotta reflexes and a complex, rich bouquet that ranges through sweet and flowery to spicy and fruity notes. Full-bodied and rich, structured and very cellar-worthy, it offers excellent companionship to game and red meat, as well as mushrooms and truffles. Matured cheeses are also friends to this wine. Main notes are blood orange and plum, leather and black raspberry. Cinnamon, anise and coffee also show up, as well as a hint of smoke.
Round Pond Rosato Nebbiolo (Sonoma County, CA)
This is admittedly not an easy bottle to find but I love it so much I have to mention it. Served frosty-cold, it is a less tannin-forward iteration of the grape thanks to a lot less skin, and it’s a noseful of strawberries and violets and an awesome companion to nearly anything you might be eating. It loves olives in particular.
Vietti Perbacco Nebbiolo de Langhe (Langhe, Italy; $25)
This Nebbiolo for the Langhe region is an aromatic acrobat with rapidly unfolding hints of spice, licorice and something a bit like eucalyptus (in California that note is almost always the result of eucalyptus trees in or near the vineyard; in this case I have no idea). Intense and slightly candied, spiced plums and a bit of strawberry jam haunt the finish. I suspect this wine ages well. Since corks don’t stay in bottles at my house most of the time, I leave it to you to confirm.